Freeform Radio

Freeform radio, is a radio station programming format in which the disc jockey is given total control over what music to play, regardless of music genre or commercial interests. Freeform radio stands in contrast to most commercial radio stations, in which DJs have little or no influence over programming structure or playlists. In the United States, freeform DJs are still bound by Federal Communications Commission regulations.

Many shows lay claim to be the first freeform radio program; the earliest is ‘Nightsounds’ on KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, D.J.’d by John Leonard. Probably the best-remembered in the Midwest is ‘Beaker Street,’ which ran for almost 10 years on KAAY ‘The Mighty 1090’ in Little Rock, Arkansas, beginning in 1966, making it also probably the best-known such show on an AM station; its signal reached from Canada to Mexico and Cuba, blanketing the Midwest and Midsouth of the U.S.

WFMU is currently the longest-running freeform radio station in the United States. WNEW-FM 102.7 in NYC was the First commercial station in the US to introduce a freeform format. It stayed that way under the ownership of Metromedia Broadcasting till it was sold and the new owners were not interested. WNEW-FM was a leader in introducing new music and making household names of a good deal of the bands from the 1960s and ’70s that are now renown. Jim Ladd of KLOS in Los Angeles, California was one of the most notable freeform DJs. Tom Petty wrote a song about him called ‘The Last DJ.’ The only time Jim Ladd didn’t have complete control over what music is being played is when he turned control over to his faithful listeners commonly referred to as ‘The Tribe.’ As of 2012 Ladd is hosting a daily freeform show on Sirius XM’s ‘Deep Tracks.’

The freeform ethos tends to disdain playlists confined to a single music genre. However, DJs may opt to play selections according to an arbitrary theme (e.g., Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ followed by Radiohead’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’). Freeform-ish stations that played only or almost only rock music were known as progressive rock stations. Commercial freeform radio stations were common in the late 1960s and early ’70s, particularly on the FM band, but are rare today. An exceptional case was Indie 103.1 FM of Santa Monica and Newport Beach, California. Indie 103.1 broadcast radio programs in which famous musicians from the world of popular music host radio programs and choose the playlist. Indie 103.1 recently left the FM airwaves, but currently continues on the internet.

College radio and Internet radio are sanctuaries of the freeform format. ‘NeverEndingWonder Radio,’ ‘Radio Paradise,’ ‘Radio Free Phoenix,’ and ‘Hollow Earth Radio’ are four examples of freeform Internet radio streams. On Sirius XM satellite radio, the weekly Bob Dylan-hosted ‘Theme Time Radio Hour’ features a freeform format, as do several specialty programs on ‘The Loft.’ Many freeform stations are small and lack corporate backing, and therefore have relatively weak radio transmitters (especially around metropolitan areas where corporate radio signals dominate), a problem that has caused numerous broadcasters to transition to Internet radio, pirate radio or both. The full service format can be seen as a variant of the freeform format, though since most full-service stations are located in rural areas, country music, adult standards, classic hits (oldies or classic rock), and occasionally adult contemporary music tend to form the bulk of the music on a full-service station, and the vast majority of full-service stations focus primarily on mainstream, popular music (whereas freeform stations often put the emphasis on less widely known or more exotic selections).

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